Dalian confirms $77 million sponsorship to stabilise Chinese league and grassroots football

Chinese real estate giant Dalian Wanda Group, which pulled out of national soccer in 2000 in protest against systematic corruption, has returned to the game at its latest hour of need.

A subsidiary of China National United Oil Corp, and backed by assets estimated at 140 billion yuan ($21.7 billion) in commercial properties, luxury hotels, chain stores and tourism, Wanda will take up the currently vacant title sponsorship of the China Super League, which will be known as the Dalian Wanda Plaza CSL, until 2013.

Wanda's own team, founded as Dalian Wanda FC in 1994, set a domestic 55-game unbeaten record and won the Jia-A League, then China's top league, four times between 1994 and 1998. However Wanda's president, Wang Jianlin, vowed never to have anything to do with Chinese football again when his club controversially lost the 1998 CFA Cup semi-final to Liaoning. The club was withdrawn from the league and, two years later, sold to Dalian Shide.

As recently reported in the Asian Football Business Review, corruption is not Chinese football's only major problem; grassroots football is slumping across many age group categories, threatening not only the viability of the professional leagues, but also the health of regional and continental competitions such as the Asian Cup.

Thoughtfully, Wanda's half-billion-yuan ($77 million), three-year deal with the CFA also covers the company's sponsorship of the national youth league (including U-13, U-15, U-17 and U-19 divisions), referee training and assessment (and raising referee payments from 2,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan per game), an overseas program for teenage players (the "Future Star Program" which will send 20 young players every year to Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands), and providing 40 million yuan per year for the hiring of a world-class foreign coach for the China national team.

"The progress of Chinese soccer depends on the emergence of high-level young players," the China Daily quoted Wei Di, chairman of the China Football Association since last year, as saying. "China's negligence in developing teenage soccer directly lead to the slump in the sport in recent years." While 500 million yuan was a good start it was still "not enough", he added.

Explaining Dalian's change of mind about involvement in football, Wang told Xinhua news agency that his love for football "is still burning" and he wanted "to do something to help the Chinese people realise their dreams."

Cai Zhenhua, a vice sports minister overseeing Chinese football said at the signing ceremony that the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee and China's State Council "pay great attention to Chinese soccer" and it is a sacred responsibility to raise the level of the game in China.

China's Super League kicked off its current season on 1 April without a title sponsor or a national TV deal and with senior officials still facing trial over a 2010 corruption scandal.